A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
Let’s see. How about a mile-long motorcade of ceremonial gold Cadillacs, trimmed in chartreuse, hot pink and crimson, each with a steel pan and musician balanced on the roof, blasting out a tricked-out, soca-style version of the Virgin Islands March, while beautiful girls in feathered headdresses and handsome mocko jumbies hand out free plane tickets to Denmark along with bottles of Cruzan and Diegeo rum with labels that peel off to reveal either a boarding pass for a seven-day cruise, a GERS bond, or a prepaid one-year of service guarantee from the V.I. Water and Power Authority? And fireworks. Lots of fireworks.
Now that might wake up some people.
Short of that extravaganza, efforts to get the public to focus on “self-determination” may continue to get little more than a sleepy nod from the general populace.
But that doesn’t mean the efforts will cease – or that they are unimportant.
Malik Sekou, the University of the Virgin Islands professor and community activist who is leading the latest educational campaign on V.I. political status, understands it’s an uphill trudge. As program director of a $250,000 U.S. Interior “Capacity Building Grant,” he’s been directing the effort for nearly a year. It coincides with the centennial of the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the U.S., but it is a separate initiative.
“This is heavy lifting,” Sekou said. It requires people to think deeply, consider the ramifications of a wide array of options, listen to one another, and form informed opinions about the future. This is not about personalities; it’s about political philosophy.
This is a “Where-do-we-go-from-here discussion,” as Sekou put it.
Should the Virgin Islands move toward independence? Should it try to find a way to statehood, despite its small size? Should it evolve in a free association status? Make improvements as an unincorporated territory?
The first challenge is getting everyone even to understand the terms.
For instance, many people don’t want to discuss statehood as an option, Sekou said. All they want to talk about is getting the right to vote for president, “and they don’t see that those two issues are connected.”
Then there is the diversity factor.
“There is an element in the Virgin Islands that has no problem hijacking the discussion,” he said. What he calls a very small minority of residents wants to restrict the discussion to those who fit its definition of “natives” and tell everyone else “you don’t have a voice.”
Sekou said, “Because of that, I’ve been in some pitched battles” with that minority, keeping the discussion open to all V.I. residents.
At the same time, for a majority of the population, there is a tendency to avoid issues that divide, Sekou said, and that has been well illustrated in ongoing plans and activities for the centennial, which tend to focus on shared history, traditional foods and old-fashioned entertainments.
“The consensus is in the culture,” Sekou explained. Politics is divisive, so people avoid issues related to it. “Almost instinctively they get into culture, into folklore.”
Perhaps the biggest reason the status talks are a hard sell, however, is that many see them as esoteric.
“These issues seem remote, or abstract” when people are facing “pressing problems right in front of their faces,” Sekou said.
It’s hard to concentrate on whether you prefer free associated status to statehood when you’re wondering when the electricity will come back on. Or whether there will still be money in the retirement system when you retire. Or even if you will be able to keep your job until you’re ready to retire.
There’s a tradition of ignoring the question of political status in the Virgin Islands.
In September1993, there was a referendum on it. The turnout was only about 30 percent, Sekou recalled. And voters went for the status quo.
Meanwhile, V. I. political leaders have been almost universally silent on the question.
“After 100 years of being a territory, the politicians have no position?” Sekou asked. “Every political party by definition must have a philosophy.”
Beginning last summer, the public education project has been in full swing, primarily on Virgin Islands airways. Sekou has done much of the talking himself on various radio programs. Under the grant, Carlyle Corbin, Kenny Hendrickson and Eugene Petersen were hired to go on radio and explain and discuss the three options:
– Statehood/integration into the U.S.
– Sovereignty as an independent state or freely associated state
– Autonomy as an unincorporated territory or the status quo as of 2017
There also have been public forums, most notably a lecture by Colon de Armas, who was invited from Puerto Rico to speak on the economic implications of the unincorporated territorial status on Puerto Rico.
Technically, the work should wrap up in June since it was funded under a one-year grant, but Sekou said he’s hoping for an extension and, in any case, he’s trying to plan for a major forum in early July, timing it to highlight Virgin Islands Emancipation July 3 and U.S. Independence July 4.
He said he’s hoping for participation from a large cross-section of residents, and especially from elected officials and from leaders of the three political parties active in the territory – Democrats, Republicans and the Independent Citizens Movement.
Sekou said he wants to hold the forum in the Virgin Islands and have it televised so it will reach a wide audience.
Hopefully, he won’t need fireworks.